A new collection of photos, some locked away for 50 years, explores the soul beneath the glamour
By Blair Tindall
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Frozen in time as a complex Hollywood bombshell who could project both resilience and vulnerability, Marilyn Monroe continues to fascinate the global imagination more than half a century after her death at age 36 on Aug. 5, 1962.
A new exhibition of photographs at the Bergamot Station Arts Center’s Andrew Weiss Gallery assembles a diverse depiction of the enigmatic actress, one that spans Monroe’s first and last professional sittings alongside candid shots of the soul beneath the glitz — intimate moments with a woman everyone knew of but few truly knew.
“Young people may not know the names of Betty Grable or Greta Garbo, but Marilyn Monroe is more easily recognized than some of the world’s most powerful and accomplished people,” said gallerist Andrew Weiss, who curated the exhibition.
Startling in its representation of Monroe’s personality and evolution, “Marilyn Monroe: The Making of a Legend” features images by seven photographers, some making their West Coast debut after being seen for the first time in just these past few months.
Kashio Aoki snapped Marilyn’s most candid moments in “Honeymoon Series.” A flight attendant, Aoki served Monroe and newlywed second husband Joe DiMaggio as they fled paparazzi en route from Tokyo in 1954. Grateful for Aoki’s kindness, the pair allowed him to take personal photos, which remained undeveloped for 50 years.
Other casual images include the exhibition’s earliest. In one, an unrecognizable 19-year-old Monroe, then Norma Jeane Daugherty, smiles into the sun on a Malibu beach, hair whipping beneath a Rosie-the-Riveter scarf. Photographer William Carroll paid $20 to shoot her girl-next-door look, and an earnest Monroe advised him to go easy on swimsuit shots, according to the exhibit catalogue.
Teenage Norma Jeane’s wholesome image, however, belied the childhood that sculpted a troubled, intensely creative adult. Abandoned by her mentally ill mother, Monroe grew up in a series of foster homes. In many, she experienced abuse and encountered predatory men, and escaped into marriage at age 16.
Later, as an actress exploited by mid-Century Hollywood studios, Monroe felt most comfortable around photographers, according to the exhibit catalogue. Trusting them, she could collaborate and develop her artistic sense, feeling free to spread her wings and avant-garde sensibility.
Her early years fueled anguish, but also unshakable determination. Andres de Dienes shot some of the exhibit’s most poignant images in 1946, which caught not only the icon’s innocence but also some of her eerie, improvisatory poses.
On a beach near Malibu, de Dienees — who had become a confidante — read her a poem, “Lines on the Death of Mary.” Monroe wrapped herself in a dark blanket, telling the photographer she was imagining her own death mask. Later, a sleepless Monroe called de Dienes to her home in the middle of the night. The resulting images are chilling, depicting a phantom illuminated only by car headlights.
As studios latched onto Monroe’s appeal, they polished her look with plastic surgery as well as hair and teeth lightening, even raising her hairline through electrolysis.
Where de Dienes had witnessed Monroe’s ascent, Hollywood glamour photographer Laszlo Willinger first preserved her new pinup image in his 1948 “Studio Shots”: a bathing beauty, an unapproachable prize, a diamond-studded diva.
Among the exhibition’s more notable works are those shot by Milton Greene for Look magazine in 1953. Greene, a master photographer, is credited along with Richard Avedon and others for first merging fine art photography with high fashion. And these are unfamiliar pictures, even to the most devoted Monroe fan.
“Here is a never-seen trove that was locked in a bank vault for 50 years,” said Weiss, who recently acquired rights to the images. “These photos, unpublished until 2015, intrigue her admirers.”
Taken soon after the premier of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” these long-hidden photographs showcase Marilyn’s iconic peak, the star stark against scarlet in a black Geoffrey Beene gown. But Greene’s “Marilyn with Lute,” perhaps the exhibition’s crown jewel, reveals a pensive, lonely blonde — the Marilyn that few knew, and one Greene was able to mine.
So trusted was Greene that he and Monroe formed their own production company, allowing her to leave the studio system and become a free agent. With such independence, her creativity flourished, possibly influencing upcoming 1960s models like Verushka — among the first considering themselves artists, not puppets.
By the time Bert Stern shot Monroe at the Bel Air Hotel in 1962, her confidence soared in sessions where she wore only accessories. Marilyn ruled the sitting, ousting stylists to co-create sessions alone with the photographer, resulting in a visceral series of nudes.
The sexuality of Stern’s sessions softened with those of Monroe’s last photos, taken by George Barris for Cosmopolitan two weeks before her death by a drug overdose. Barris shot Monroe at Santa Monica beach in a short bathrobe, towel and Ecuadorean sweater. Minus couture, and even through a face now lined by experience, Monroe’s innocence still shone through.
“I knew I belonged to the public and to the world,” Monroe wrote in her unfinished autobiography, a personal insight also quoted in the exhibition catalogue. “Not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”
“Marilyn Monroe: The Making of a Legend” runs through Sept. 5 at the Andrew Weiss Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., D-4, Bergamot Station Arts Center, Santa Monica. The exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free.
All images are available for purchase — from $3,500 to $45,000 per work — and the exhibition is accompanied by a small set of newly created art photographs by Tyler Shields that are themed around Monroe’s death.
Call (310) 246-9333 or visit andrewweiss.com for more information.